White, Nick. “How to Survive a Summer: A Novel”, Blue Rider Press. 2017.
The Trauma of a Gay-to-Straight Conversion Camp
When he was younger, graduate student Will Dillard was forced to go to gay conversion camp and he thought he had buried his memories of that terrible experience. However, when he finds out a horror movie based on the camp is hitting theaters, he’s forced to face his past and the role he played in another camper’s death. As he remembers his supposed rehabilitation, he takes an impromptu trip back to his Mississippi home and to the camp itself to so that he can deal with those memories and solve the mystery that took place there. Written in the first person, Will’s story is told in flashback and brings together the genres of self discovery, horror, thriller and mystery.
The story starts in the present day as Will Dillard tries to find his place in today’s world. He realizes that he is misplaced and has no strong convictions about anything. His journey of discovery forces him to deal with the memories of that camp and bring past and present together.
The novel has great depth with well-drawn characters who spring to life as we read about them. White writes about the past and the present with detail and it all seems very real. What I especially liked is the way White presents Will who in the beginning is quite the irritating character but who grows in many ways thus causing us to care about him and his life. Will was fifteen when he was sent to camp in the summer of 1999 and he was there for almost four weeks. During that period he was supposed to cured of his homosexuality. This did not happen. Now as a graduate student studying film, he is unable to stay in a romantic relationship and finds that he has a hard time maintaining any kind of human relationship. He has trouble remaining in the present due to the traumas of Camp Levi and he has never been able to discuss with anyone what happened that summer. He therefore has led a solitary life.
The aforementioned horror will is based on a memoir of someone he knew that summer and it has been catching on with the public, causes Will to face his traumatic past and the secrets it contains. Will knows that this is what has kept him from being able to confide in someone else and he is fearful about bringing that summer back. He decides to head home for a bit and to see his father, a former preacher, from whom he has been estranged. As this happens, Will understands that the past cannot be isolated.
Back home, he meets two of his fellow campers and one former counselor, all of whom were part of the events of that summer and Will decides the only thing he can do is go back to the campsite and face what happened and his own complicity in those events. He must also deal with his own identity and the family secrets he has tried to keep hidden as well as those he has taken as his own. Because he has been told over and over that he is an abomination, he is unable to love himself or anyone else.
Will’s journey is not a “straight” one as the book sometimes detours into stories about his family and the stories that his mother told him about women who lived where she was raised. Ultimately, however this is Will’s story as he confronts his demons and deal with his past once and for all. Many will be horrified at what the camp did to those who attended and writer White’s retelling of these events is masterful.
Since I am from the South and spent time in Mississippi, I was especially interested in how White would depict the area and I can tell you that his descriptions of Southern culture, characters and geography are right on. In Mississippi, evangelism and homophobia are intertwined totally. We certainly see the codependence of faith and fear and I am sure that this was not thought of when the world came into being with the evangelical idea of creation.
White’s novel is a story about stories and if you think about that sentence for a moment, you will understand what I am saying here. Identity, family and trauma rub up against each other is lucid and lyrical prose. This is a story that must be told. This is a story that vice president Mike Pence needs to read and have read to him over and over again.